On May 30, 1968, over a quarter of a million restless race fans packed the grandstands to witness Colin Chapman and Andy Granatelli’s #70 STP Turbine Indy Racer become the first car to break the qualifying record at the Indianapolis 500, reaching the unprecedented speed of 171.208 mph.
A marvel of automotive engineering, the iconic Lotus 56-3 housed one of the first turbine engines ever used in an Indy car and employed the latest aeronautical engineering techniques—vital towards achieving the technical advances Chapman and Granatelli were so famous for championing.
Perhaps nowhere else was this historic event more poetic than in Indianapolis, Indiana—home to the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the famed Indy 500, often considered the most prestigious motorsports event in the world.
The very moment British racing legend Graham Hill fired up the jet turbine engine, Chapman and Granatelli’s #70 Lotus not only launched a new breed of race car—but forever kick-started the sport of Indy racing in the hearts of Americans, far and wide.
The racing world would never be the same again. The turbine engine captured the imaginations of a whole generation of auto racing fans.
Motorsports icon Andy Granatelli partnered with England’s Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman and his team to design and build four race cars powered by state-of-the-art turbine jet engines.
Produced at Pratt & Whitney Canada, the ST6N-74 gas turbine engine found in the Lotus 56 race car was developed as a 500 bhp powerplant variant model of the PT6 engine for specific use in the 1968 Indianapolis 500. With a modular design, the engine can be used for any number of applications through the use of various gas generators and reduction gearboxes. But above all, the engine is safe. As one of the most popular turboprop engines in all of aerospace, the PT6 family of engines absolutely has to be up to the task. Aviation, both military and commercial, places the lives of millions in the hands of PT6 engines. They are known for being incredibly reliable, with some models going 9,000 hours before requiring maintenance.
A first of its kind—#70 Lotus turbine engine race car ran in the 1968 Indy 500 breaking a track-qualifying record.
One of the turbines that ran in the ‘68 Indy was Lotus car #70 driven by racing legend Graham Hill who proved the car’s incredible speed by being the first to break the one-lap qualifying record.
As Granatelli had set out to prove, turbine jet engines produced tremendous torque and power. Utilizing around 80% fewer parts than a piston car, the turbines ran very smoothly. In fact, the deafening roar and rumble of the conventional piston-powered race car was replaced by the strong and steady build of a jet engine whir. Small parts malfunctions took the turbines out of the race at the ‘68 Indy 500, but their ferocity and power on the track had put the piston cars on notice.
Graham Hill: Winner of the 1966 Indy 500 and the only driver ever to complete the Triple Crown of Motorsport
It was racing legend Graham Hill—a Classic Team Lotus veteran—who would find himself behind the wheel of the Lotus 56 #70 car in 1968 after winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1966. Hill took to the car immediately, setting a new track record with an average speed of 171.208 mph over four laps in qualifying.
With the whole world watching on race day, Hill pushed the turbine car to fourth place as late as the 110th lap when a minor crash forced him out of the race. But the statement was made: these jet engine cars could compete with any car on the track. The legend of both the #70 car and the late, great Graham Hill live on. To this day, Graham Hill is the only driver to ever win the Triple Crown of Motorsport.
Power restrictions by the USAC, the governing body of the racing industry, ultimately made it impossible for turbines to compete in future 500s. But their impact was undeniable. The turbine cars remain among the most popular, technically advanced and highly controversial race cars ever created.
The wedge design of the Lotus 56 cars would become the basis for modern front and rear-winged Indycars.
The “wedge” shape of the Lotus cars designed by Maurice Phillippe had superior aerodynamics compared to the cigar-shaped cars of the day, and was a precursor to today’s standard winged design. The aluminum monocoque chassis was dubbed “the wedge” and helped keep the weight of the car under 1,350 pounds. With four-wheel drive, double-wishbone suspensions and the turbine engine, the #70 car was a force to be reckoned with on the track.
“The 1968 STP Lotus Turbine was very, very, very modern, for sure. It was modern all the way around, chassis and engine. You’ve got to remember at that time, Lotus was at the top of the heap designing race cars. Combining Chapman, Granatelli and Lotus, you just knew the car was going to be real good and even with the regulations. And they said it didn’t, but the Turbine had more power than the year before.”
Classic Team Lotus’ entries into the 1968 Indianapolis 500 were triumphs of automotive engineering. The ST6N-74 engine was mid-longitudinally mounted in the lightweight fiberglass body, giving 500 brake horsepower to a refined suspension design with all-wheel drive. In other words, the Lotus 56 cars had fantastic control over unbridled power. The overall design has been described as “the most innovative race car ever seen” with the turbine engine requiring around 80% less parts, including a radiator, leaving the clean lines undisturbed by what would normally be a large opening for the radiator.
Originally designed as a three-stage compressor and converted to a single-stage to comply with USAC regulations, the Lotus omitted a conventional gearbox because of the turbine’s wealth of torque across the entire rev range. As a result, the Lotus 56 cars employed minimalism at its optimal efficiency.
The only turbine race car to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Richard Petty: “The King” was proud owner of the #70 Lotus Race Car for over 15 years.
Passed down from Richard “The King” Petty—the Lotus 56 #70 has been down a prestigious road.
Owned for years by NASCAR legend Richard Petty, the #70 Lotus 56-3 turbine was purchased by Austin, Texas businessman Milton Verret who ordered a ground-up restoration of this historic race car. Impressively, Clive Chapman, son of original Lotus car founder Colin Chapman and Vince Granatelli, son of Andy Granatelli, were commissioned to oversee the complete restoration back to its original 1968 specs.
The #70 1968 Lotus 56-3 Indy turbine race car was never altered or converted to a piston-powered vehicle. Its only race was the historic 1968 Indy 500. The amazing restoration of this rare, iconic car is a powerful tribute to the innovative turbine engine program that had been created nearly 50 years earlier.
The #70 car remains one of only four authentic STP Lotus 56 cars from the 1960s to survive to the present day and is entirely one-of-a-kind.
Along with the #20 and #60 cars, the #70 was featured at the 2014 Indy 500 pre-race festivities when the three original cars took a parade lap around the speedway driven by Parnelli Jones, Vince Granatelli and Mario Andretti.
The crowd erupted when it saw history repeating before its very eyes. Cheers followed the unique whoosh of the jet turbine engines taking the straightaways. The parade lap was a historic tribute by the IndyCar series, the drivers and the car owners that reinforced the proud tradition and history of motorsports ingenuity.
Reunited: Classic Team Lotus honors the Lotus 56 turbine cars and their historic 1968 Indy run with a photo on race day 2014.
May 25, 2014: Parnelli Jones, Vince Granatelli, Mario Andretti honor the IndyCar series with a parade lap.
Car #70 was last displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum where it was enjoyed by everyone.
Thousands of people flock to the most sacred auto racing museum in the United States to get a glimpse of the car that shook the foundations of the Indianapolis 500 nearly 50 years ago. The #70 car was last displayed alongside its surviving two Lotus 56 counterparts protected by security and a caring staff, wowing car enthusiasts of the next generation and appreciating in value.
To witness these historic race cars firsthand and spread the word about their tremendous past is an experience steeped in historical importance, engineering genius and automotive excitement. The Lotus #70 has its place in auto racing history, but you can carry on its legacy into the future.